An unsung hero from Columbus: Michael Parkhurst

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On days such as yesterday with much celebration, much fanfare, and much boasting, there often goes a moment, a performance, or an individual who gets overlooked.

Last night, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, and the stars of the USMNT took much of the credit – and rightly so – for their second half domination of Mexico en route to Brazil 2014 qualification.

One individual’s performance did, however, get swept under the rug, and without it the game would have been vastly different.

Michael Parkhurst came on as a second-half substitute for right-back Fabian Johnson, and changed the match entirely in the home side’s favor.

It was clear that, with a new coach at the helm for all of three days, Mexico was keeping things simple. They fired salvos directly at the obvious vulnerabilities of the United States – they challenged hard in the weakened US midfield, and bombarded their right flank just as the Costa Ricans had done. They looked to start with a bang – again, like Costa Rica – and grab a goal or two before tiring.

Getting the start at right-back was Johnson, and although he fared much better than poor Michael Orozco, it was still a point of weakness. Right-back has been a merry-go-round for the United States in the recent going, and Jurgen Klinsmann has worked hard to find a suitable fit down the flank who can provide both an attacking instinct as well as a brick wall for opposing wingers.

Mexico had tired from their early frenzy, and had no goals to show for it. Enter Parkhurst, who came on for Johnson at halftime who had apparently tweaked his hamstring. He was the switch the United States was looking to flip.

Often as a defender, it is best to go unnoticed. Much like a defensive back in football, it is more difficult to notice when one performs well, but all too easy to spot mistakes – which often lead to scores. Parkhurst is easily overlooked, largely because the Mexicans had ended their pounding of the US right flank by halftime.

However, what cannot be underestimated is how well the 29-year-old Rhode Island native fit into the well-organized US back four. The crew, both first half and second, seemed to absorb a fair bit of pressure but never looked like they were on the verge of conceding, and the organization between the back line and the defensive midfielders on Mexican attacks is without question a main reason why.

On the attacking end, Parkhurst added a lovely first-touch layoff to Mix Diskerud on the United States’ second goal, which Diskerud worked to the edge of the box and crossed to Donovan to punch home. Again, in the background, but contributing nonetheless.

Is Parkhurst the long-term solution at right-back? It’s a question whose answer has eluded not just Jurgen Klinsmann but almost every fan as well. People have their opinions, but nobody seems to agree.

Fabian performed so-so, but appeared to be the weakest link of the back four in the first half nonetheless. Steve Cherundolo had knee surgery…again. The Michael Orozco experiment at Costa Rica was pretty much a failure. Eric Lichaj has been stuffed to the bottom of the pile by the current regime thanks to spotty performances at the club level. Brad Evans figured to be the man this qualifying round but ended up with niggling injuries – nothing new for the 28-year-old. Klinsmann seems to favor Geoff Cameron out of position at defensive midfielder rather than in the spot he plays for at Stoke.

Whomever you believe to be the long-term answer, credit must be given to the man who, for 45 minutes, took the weakest link in the United States back four and solidified it.

This allowed for bigger and better things to take place up front – namely, that whole “Dos a Cero” business we’ve been shoving down your throat.

Report: Croatia’s Kalinic sent home from World Cup

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It’s only been five days, and we have our first World Cup dismissal.

According to a bombshell report out of Croatia, Croatia National Team head coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic from the team’s camp, after the AC Milan player reportedly refused to be a substitute during Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria.

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The report states that Kalinic refused to come on due to an injury, but Dalic had said recently that his team had no injuries that would keep players out, potentially meaning that Kalinic used the injury claim as an excuse.

Croatia’s FA is expected to confirm the news on Monday.

After a rough season at AC Milan, with just six league goals in 31 Serie A appearances, Kalinic, at 30, is likely finished with the Vatreni. He scored three goals in World Cup qualifying but hasn’t started for Croatia since a 2-0 win over Peru in March. Kalinic did score against Spain in Croatia’s shock 2-1 win exactly two years prior to Saturday’s match.

He was deemed second choice to Mario Mandzukic as the center forward up top, but was reportedly asked to spell Mandzukic during Croatia’s match against Nigeria, and Kalinic reportedly refused.

If true, Croatia will continue with 22 players for the remainder of the tournament.

VAR, Granqvist penalty lead Sweden over South Korea

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On Day 5 of the World Cup, VAR took center stage once again.

Referee Joel Aguilar of El Salvador made the trek over to the video monitor in the 63rd minute after a no-call on a South Korea challenge in its own box, eventually reversing his decision and giving Sweden a penalty kick. Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist stepped up and sent his side in front before holding on for a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Monday morning in Nizhny Novgorod.

With the win, Sweden is joint top of Group F with Mexico on three points.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The key moment in the match took place in the 62nd minute, as Sweden’s Viktor Claesson got his foot on a loose ball first before South Korea’s Kim Min-woo went through Claesson to clear the ball away.

Aguilar initially waved the penalty claim away, but after about 20 seconds and a word from his assistant referees in his ear, Aguilar made the sign for VAR and ran over to take a second look. Around 20-30 seconds later, Aguilar reversed his decision, awarding the Swedes a penalty.

Granqvist, who plays his club football for FC Krasnodar in Russia, stepped up to the spot and with veteran poise, sent Cho Hyun-woo the wrong way for the 1-0 lead.

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Sweden had chances in the first half to get on the board. Marcus Berg was alone on goal in the 20th minute but Hyun-woo stuck out a leg and deflected it away. Another chance from Berg led to another save from Hyun-woo as he kept South Korea in the match.

Following Sweden’s goal, Sweden sat deep and allowed Heung-Min Son to find space on the wings, where South Korea set up numerous half-chances. But the final pass was just missing, and Sweden was able to clear the ball out of the box on numerous occasions, holding on to victory.

It’s a big win for Sweden, which will face an angry and pumped up Germany side coming off a loss in its first match. Meanwhile, South Korea looks to rebound against Mexico, with its spirits higher than the clouds.

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.